The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter V

My look at Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues. My review of this chapter, the book’s longest at 48 pages, is going to be shorter than normal. While thematic criticism is my favorite type of science fiction criticism, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this chapter because much of it is very much like the thematic entries in the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were cut and pasted from Stableford’s entries for it or vice versa. However, I did not do my blogger due diligence and check my copy of that book. My boxes of books aren’t labelled that exactly and there are scores of them. And I’ve lifted a lot of them lately

I’ll also note that Stableford talks about now more obscure stories because over 40 years of sf history has been added since he wrote this book.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

Chapter V is titled “Themes and Trends in Science Fiction”. 

The first section is on “Machines” and opens with a quote from Miguel de Unamuno stating that Don Quixote was right to attack the windmill as a dangerous enemy. Stableford goes on to say,

Today the marriage of man and machine, after a long courtship, has been consummated. The honeymoon is over, and we begin to doubt whether we have done the right thing. Science fiction tells the story of our passage from infatuation to the brink of disillusionment with remarkable clarity. 

This section includes coverage of things that have been categorized into entries like “automation”, “computers”, “cyborgs”, and “robots” in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia.  Stableford sees the development, particularly in the case of the robot stories, as largely pro- technology authors losing faith in man and not machines, in our ability to morally and intellectually handle them post-WWII.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV

My look at Stableford’s work continues.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter IV, “The Expectations of the Science Fiction Reader”, Stableford tries to discover what sf readers get out of the genre. He looks at three questions: what sf readers say they get out of the genre, how the various definitions of sf serve as rules for composing sf works, and what writers and apologists of sf say about the genre’s function and value. 

Stableford argues that the whole question of science fiction as a genre is that reading a work of sf is different than reading another sort of novel. That’s what defines the genre. He quotes Darko Suvin as defining a genre as a system of expectations, based on prior reading experience, of a particular type of material. Even innovations in the genre are just an evolution of expectations based on past experience with sf.

What are those expectations? To get an idea, Stableford turns to the letters columns of sf magazines. There are a couple of methodological problems with this acknowledges Stableford. 

These are, first of all, a self-selected sample, and, of course, not all the letters received were printed though Stableford notes early sf pulps frequently had letters insulting certain stories.

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV”

The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter III

My chapter-by-chapter review of this Stableford work continues.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

Chapter III, “The Evolution of Science Fiction as a Publishing Category”, starts out with some possible definitions of sf and, thus, its origins. 

If sf is just fantastic tales, the beginning is Lucian of Samosata’s True History. If it is mythology for a modern age, one can go back to Homer’s Odyssey. If sf is a “didactic medium” to popularize science and awaken dull minds to new vistas of imagination, you can go back to Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae. If you see sf as intimately tied to scientific thought, you go with Johannes Kepler’s Somnium. If you are interested in sf as a means of social speculation, you cite Plato’s Republic as the origin point. An “etymologically-minded critic” might insist that the term science fiction loses all meaning before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An American reader of pulp magazines would trace it to 1926 and Astounding Magazine

However, Stableford argues that it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that enough kinds of things we would call sf were produced for it to be recognized as a literary genre, and that label basically starts with H. G. Wells’ work. (I’m not sure if his work on French romans scientifique have changed this.) 

Sociologically, there were four trends Stableford sees as sparking the popular imagination and setting the ground for the public to be interested in sf as a genre:

the revolution in transportation; the theory of evolution; the socialist movement; and the anticipation of large-scale war.

The inclusion of the socialist movement is a significant addition to usual theories of sf developing as a genre.

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter III”

The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter II

My look at Brian Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In the Chapter II of the book, “The Analysis of Communicative Functions”, Stableford looks at how the directive, maintenance, and restorative communicative functions work in sf.

Stableford says you would think that sf, deemed escapist fiction, would all be done in the restorative mode, but that’s not the case. Only a naïve, very inexperienced sf reader would think that. 

The crucial task would be to ask sf readers what they get out of reading the genre. 

There is, however, a sociological problem with creating a questionnaire to do that since it runs the risk of creating data artifacts. Fortunately, American sf magazines have long had feedback by readers in their letters columns. There is a problem of “content analysis” in regard to sorting sf into the three communicative categories.

Directive and maintenance are easy. Directive content is novel. Maintenance is familiar. 

Restorative is harder to pin down. Stableford says that, rather than using individual texts, he will do content analysis by theme. 

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter II”

The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I

And we’re on to the first chapter of Stableford’s work.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter I, “Approaches to the Sociology of Literature”, Stableford starts by quoting sociologist Leo Lowenthal. Like so many others, Lowenthal emphasizes works of fiction as a product of a creative process and is not interested in the readers of that fiction. This type of sociological examination is interested in why the author chose the subject and method of presentation he did. Psychologists of literature followed Freud’s interest in the psychology of creation. For Freud, literature was an expression of neurotic tendencies.

Most of these approaches ignore literature as a means of expression. Madame de Staël was interested, so she said, in literature’s effect on religion, custom, and law, but she didn’t actually write much about that. Like her contemporaries, Hegel and Herder, she mainly saw literature as expressing a spirit of the age. In this view, all a writer can do is express that spirit, well or badly.

But this, argues Stableford, is hardly a scientific notion. It can’t be falsified. Twentieth century sociologists Georg Lukas and Lucien Goldmann were no better. The latter saw literature as expressing a “world vision”, the “whole complex of ideas, aspirations and feelings” of a class. Goldmann’s ideas led him to ignore large swathes of literature as “accidental” and not expressing this world vision. These theories don’t explain how aesthetically satisfying works are never created accidentally.

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I”

The Sociology of Science Fiction: Intro

Where was I . . .

Stableford, yes, Brian Stableford before the whole tediousness of moving on short notice to another state for another job, the culmination of an eight month project.

And so I have. But not much reading got done and even less blogging and that was further disrupted by books being packed away and some books not making the journey at all.

Since I was reading works by Stableford and translated by him, I decided to cover another of his critical works. People seem to like those entries. And, even if they didn’t, I’d still do them.

This is Stableford’s doctoral thesis, begun in 1972 and completed in 1978 and published by Borgo Press in 1987.

I’m going to do a post on each chapter. I think the work has value for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a new way of looking at some disputes in the field. (Though, looking at the last issue of Locus, I’m reminded that I am in no way au courant with the genre.) Second, I’m hoping the framework Stableford provides will provide a scaffold to view works and trends in the field in the 43 years since it was written.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian M. Stableford, 1987.

While working on this thesis, Stableford was supporting himself by writing science fiction novels and was fascinated by the question as to why people chose to read what they did and the effects their reading had on them. Those questions were generally met with hostility on the part of readers and some writers. (And, of course, there is, he notes, a more basic question: why do people chose to read anything rather than nothing?)

Writers and literary critics don’t like the suggestion that what writers produce “is to some extent explicable in terms of their social situation and of various social pressures to which they are subject”.

The resistance to those questions can be explained.

First, there is the notion that what people chose to read says something about themselves. This generates the well-known tendency to lie if one likes to read “low prestige” genre fiction. Thus, an explanation of their reading habits may be suspected to be unflattering to these readers.

Second, writers and critics don’t like the question because literature is a sacred cause for them. It is to be discussed in terms of aesthetics and value judgements. To cite influences outside the author is, by this group’s lights, devaluing the authors’ work. The writer is God over a private cosmos of their creation. Suggesting otherwise is blasphemy.

Stableford says his intent is not to threaten readers, writers, and critics of sf or be subversive.  However, good sociology, he says, should shatter illusions, and Stableford worries his thesis is not annoying enough. He wryly says he hopes followers of sf will be reluctant to recognize themselves and react in “pure paranoid horror”.

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“The Warder of Knowledge”

This week’s weird fiction tale being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Warder of Knowledge”, Richard F. Searight, 1992.

Cover by Gahan Wilson

This story has a plus and a minus.

The minus is that it falls in the trap of telling us the experience of its protagonist, Gordon Whitney with no real way, just from his writings, for the narrator, a friend of Whiteny’s, to know these details. Even H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon”, with its narrator hurriedly writing his experiences down as the monsters close in, doesn’t go this far.

On the plus side, Whitney emotionally acts like an amateur undertaking a dangerous occult experiment. 

Robert M. Price’s introduction to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos notes that, though this story was first published in that book, Lovecraft saw the story when Searight sent it to him. Lovecraft liked it and noted Searight’s use of the Eltdown Shards as different than Lovecraft’s own in the round-robin story Lovecraft had participated in, “The Challenge from Beyond”. Lovecraft optimistically noted that Searight’s use would end up being better known than that story. Of course, things worked out completely the opposite. 

The story opens in a standard Lovecraftian vein. 

We hear about how the “neatly typed manuscript” found in Whitney’s desk drawer caused his academic comrades to regard it as the delusions of a mentally unbalanced organic chemist who dabbled in the occult. The writer says that impression would have been heightened if they had his personal journal. Searight throws a bit of novelty in by briefly mentioning the psychic impressions perceived by Professor Turkoff, a psychologist, in Whitney’s bedroom. 

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“The Letters of Cold Fire”

Yes, postings here have been sparse lately. That should change in the next couple of weeks.

However, I did manage to read last week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones discussion group.

Review: “The Letters of Cold Fire”, Manly Wade Wellman, 1934.

The story starts and takes place entirely in New York City with one Roderick Thorne showing up at a dump of an apartment building to ask about one Cavet Leslie whom he is told is sick and visited daily by a doctor. The landlord refuses to let Thorne see him. 

So, Thorne sneaks back into the apartment building right away. We get some nice, if brief, background on the slums of New York City dating back to the warring gangs of the mid-19th century and the Civil War era draft riots. 

Thorne finds Leslie in a bed, and his opening line is: “You were Cavet Leslie.  . . . Try to remember.” Leslie says he’s forbidden to remember anything but his “lessons”. Thorne gives his name. Leslie certainly knows it. He says it will “be great in hell.” 

Thorne tells him he’s come for Leslie’s book. “It’s worth both our lives, and more.”  Leslie keeps protesting against his name being used. Thorne tells Leslie he knows he has the book. Leslie studied at the Deep School. Everybody who finished the school got the book. “Few finish”, says Leslie, “Many begin, few finish.” 

Thorne reminds him the School was underground, in a place with no light. Light destroys what was taught. “Once there, the scholar remains until he has been taught, or – goes away into the dark.” Thorne knows the book has “letters of cold fire”. Leslie confirms that. They can only be read in the dark. Once a day a trapdoor opened in the Deep School, “and a hand shaggy with dark hair thrusts in food.” Leslie was at the School for seven years. 

Thorne again demands the book. It’s in the room somewhere, he knows. “How do you know?”, asks Leslie. Thorne says it’s his business to know. 

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The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I read a novel translated by Brian Stableford, I had to get a Stableford novel off the shelf.

Review: The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford, 1981. 

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The review of this book on the Brian Stableford website suggests that it is a science fictional working out of ideas from Plato’s The Republic. Tanagar society has three classes, and Stableford combines Plato’s ideas with William Sheldon’s theory of personality determined by body type. Intellectuals are passionless, thin, ascetic, and supposedly not given to emotion. Pragmatists, also not given to much emotion except at chosen times when they “jeckle”, are strivers, rightfully regarding themselves as the only ones who can get things done between the other two classes’ indecision and indiscipline. They are medium-framed, Sheldon’s mesomorphic body type. Hedonists are fat and emotional. 

The novel also partakes of some common themes of science fiction from the 1970s and 1980s: biofeedback, skills obtained through memory implants, nuclear holocaust, and resource depletion on Earth.

Our castaways are those who just couldn’t fit in to Tanagar society. That was the planet settled by a generation starship fled Earth before a nuclear war broke out. The Tanagarians put them in cold sleep.

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Three Soldiers

In keeping with my usual method of associational reading, I decided to read this literary World War One novel.

Review: Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos, 1921

I was rather disappointed with this novel. 

I’m an admirer of Dos Passos’ later USA Trilogy, but his modernistic style wasn’t fully developed yet when he wrote this novel though we do get a lot of snatches of music and a story allotted to several viewpoint characters. There’s also little of his experience as an ambulance driver in World War One. Indeed, there’s not that much actual combat in this novel at all.

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